We are now five weeks into the NFL season. Some of the big storylines have included the Chiefs’ and Rams’ efficient offenses, all Browns games being thrillers and now Drew Brees becoming the all-time passing yards leader.
Another thing that makes headlines is the league’s issue with the roughing the passer rule. After Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last season on a clean hit from Anthony Barr, the league altered the wording in the rule book for roughing the passer. A hit on a quarterback is a penalty if the defender “unnecessarily or violently throws him down or lands on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.” The previous wording was “unnecessarily or violently throws him down and lands on top of him.”
The small switch from “and” to “or” and a greater emphasis on trying to call the penalty has caused controversy throughout the season. We saw it pop up a few times in the preseason with Vikings linebacker Antoine Williams’ hit on Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler, a hit that looked like a clean sack from previous years. It was also seen in the first week of the regular season on a Myles Garrett hit on Ben Rothlisberger which changed a fourth-down stop into a first down. The Steelers scored on the next play.
Then the second week of the season came and the controversy was amped up in the Vikings and Packers game. Late in the fourth quarter, the Vikings were attempting to tie the game down eight when Kirk Cousins threw an interception. The Packers were going to win, but a flag was thrown and Clay Matthews was called for a roughing the passer. The Vikings scored a few plays later to tie the game 29-29 and after both team’s kickers missed kicks. The game ended in a tie when the Packers should have won.
Matthews would see the call again the next week and the Miami Dolphins lost defensive end William Hayes to an ACL injury when Hayes tried to avoid laying on top of Derek Carr of the Raiders on a sack. Ironic that a rule to emphasize safety causes a player to get hurt.
Although the league has tried to get the issues resolved, it keeps coming back. Sunday saw more poor calls, including T.J. Watt of the Steelers. Watt was trying to tackle Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan but pulled his arms away because he knew it would be deemed too low. Ryan would stumble and the flag was thrown. After the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was not happy.
“Those looked like legitimate calls, we’ve gotta be better there, but some of the other stuff, man, is a joke,” Tomlin said. “We’ve gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We’ve gotta get them correct. So I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you, but that’s all I’m gonna say on it.”
The Eagles also got penalized when Michael Bennett was called for a roughing the passer on Cousins on a play which he only grabbed Cousins’ legs and did not drive him to the ground. Bennett was also pushed in the back by Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph which caused the Eagles player to hit Cousins lower than originally intended, but it probably still would have been flagged. Instead of third-and-35, the Vikings had a first down and scored on the next play to go up 17-3 at the half.
The rule is not going to go anywhere. It makes sense why it is here. Quarterbacks are the stars of the league. Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Rodgers are names non-football fans will know more than other stars at different positions such as Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Travis Kelce. Protecting them is key for the league. The Packers offense has been one of the best aspects of the NFL for the last decade when Rodgers plays. Last year, it was putrid to watch.
So how does the NFL fix this rule?
First, the league needs to be more consistent. Roughing the passer calls like these have been weak compared to hits that haven’t been called. Last Thursday night’s game saw Colts quarterback Andrew Luck get sandwiched by Patriots defenders. No flag. Brady got tapped on the helmet and the flags flew. And it isn’t a case of a player “not being old enough to get calls” like Newton was told in 2015 as “older” players like Rodgers have had hits not flagged that look just as bad as hits that were flagged. The league making it more consistent will make it go a long way.
Second, the league needs to look at ways to review this. A way to do this would be to loosely base it off of the replay review system for scoring plays. There will be an official who is up in the press box with access to the network broadcast of the game. If they think the flag needs a review, they can buzz down to the head referee and stop the game to have more time to look at the hit. If the hit is too close to call, the initial call will stand. If the hit still is worthy of a flag, it adds a few seconds to the real time of the game, but if it was a bad call, it can be reversed and a game-changing penalty can be overturned and the stoppage time will be worth it. The league could then expand it to other personal fouls in the future like roughing the kicker and late hits. As long as it doesn’t add too much extra time to the game, this can help alleviate penalty issues that have hurt the NFL at times, especially this season.
The idea needs to be fleshed out a little more, but this could be a solution to see some of these bad calls get negated.
Luke Peterson is the sports editor of the Leavenworth Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org